Jumping into a kayak is not only one of the most enjoyable and relaxing outdoor activities – it’s also great for your body! Paddling on the azure tides, surrounded by nature’s beauty is truly a magnificent way to spend the day.
Despite what many people think, kayaking is actually one of the best full-body workouts on the planet. Many people are under the impression that kayaking only works their back and arms. That couldn’t be further from the truth.
In this article I’ll explain the various muscles used in kayaking – and how to keep them healthy – so you can keep on kayaking for the long-term.
Is Kayaking a Good Workout?
Many new paddlers ask this question before experiencing the total body fatigue that follows an intense kayaking session. The answer to the question really depends on your level of intensity and effort.
Kayaking doesn’t have to be a serious workout or exercise. It can be anything from a leisurely paddle in a recreational kayak, to full-on sprints – which leave you totally exhausted and gasping for air.
One of the great parts of kayaking is the level of control you have over the intensity of your workout.
Is Kayaking Cardio or Strength Training?
Kayaking is a full-body exercise, meaning both the lower and upper body muscles are worked. This form of exercise utilizes the core muscles to propel you forward with each stroke. It also incorporates major muscles of the arms and legs. This is what helps you generate greater speed and control.
This is why kayaking can be considered a form of cardio. Its primary focus rests on keeping your heart rate up during paddling sessions. Simultaneously, kayaking can increase upper body strength while helping strengthen stability through good posture.
Which Muscles Does Kayaking Work?
There are few other sports which target as many muscle groups as kayaking. An intense kayaking session will work your arms, back, core, and legs, while also improving your cardiovascular fitness.
The number one muscle group most people think of when they imagine kayaking is the back. And for good reason! The muscles in the back are one of the primary drivers used during each kayak stroke.
The Lats (latissimus dorsi) are the largest muscles in your back and are contracted during every forward stroke. They act to transfer power from the lower body and pull the arm back and inward towards your body. Pull ups, chin ups, rows and lat pulldowns are all exercises you can do in the gym to increase your lat strength.
The rhomboid muscles of the upper-back are responsible for scapular retraction, which occurs at the end of a kayak stroke. This simply means they pull your shoulder blades back towards the middle of your spine. These small muscles are very important for a healthy posture and should be stretched out frequently.
Lastly, the Traps (trapezius) are the large middle-back muscle used to move the shoulder blades up and down, as well as to provide motion to your neck and spine. Most people are only familiar with the upper traps, the so-called “shrug” muscle, but there are also middle and lower traps. Kayakers often overuse their upper traps, so it’s important to train the lower/middle traps as well.
Maintaining good posture while paddling is paramount to keeping your back healthy. That’s why getting a good quality kayak seat is such a good idea. A comfortable seat with good back support will enable you to paddle longer and stay pain free.
The shoulder muscles are heavily recruited during kayaking. They tie-in closely with the muscles in the arms and back. Shoulders might not seem that important to the casual observer, but they are actually the most injured joint by kayakers.
During the forward stroke, the back of the shoulder (posterior deltoids) gets worked much more than the front part of the shoulder. It’s used to help pull the paddle towards the body. This can lead to overdevelopment of the rear deltoids and a muscular imbalance. Training and stretching out the shoulders with particular focus on balancing the rear and forward deltoids is very useful.
Another way to ensure you avoid injury to the shoulder joint is maintaining the ‘paddler’s box’ at all times while paddling. This is just an imaginary rectangle formed by your arms, paddle and chest. This position ensures maximum power and shoulder safety.
While the rotator cuff muscles could be included with the rest of the shoulder muscles, they are important enough to merit special attention. The four muscles of the rotator cuff (supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor, and subscapularis) act in various ways to rotate and stabilize the shoulder and arm.
Keeping the rotator cuff healthy and strong is key for many athletic pursuits, but especially so for kayakers. You can train the rotator cuff in the gym with internal/external rotations using a power band or a very light dumbbell.
Biceps & Triceps
Everyone wants a pair of nicely sculpted guns. Kayaking can definitely assist in that area, as both the biceps and triceps are heavily recruited during paddling.
The biceps and triceps are known as an Agonist-Antagonist pair. This means that as one muscle contracts, the other relaxes. So during a forward paddle stroke, the biceps contract to pull the paddle in one arm, while simultaneously the triceps acts to push the paddle in the other arm. This provides a consistent workout for both muscle groups throughout the paddling motion.
Grip & Forearms
As your contact point with the paddle is in your hands, everything else you do while kayaking depends on having a strong grip on the paddle. The power generated by your core, back and arms must be transferred into the paddle through your grip. Kayaking is one of the best ways to build real grip strength, as your forearms are constantly engaged during intense paddling.
Wrist injuries can occur if you are not careful, so be sure to relax your grip when you are casually paddling.
The chest doesn’t seem like one of the obvious muscles used in kayaking, but it is involved. Chest muscles are used to extend one end of the paddle forward while the other arm pulls the paddle inward. These muscles also act as stabilizers throughout the kayaking motion, much in the same manner as they would with a cable row in the gym.
The core muscles are extensively recruited in several different ways while kayaking. Because your legs are inside the kayak, your core acts as the anchor which connects your upper body to the kayak.
Throughout the forward paddling motion your abdominals and obliques act to rotate your trunk from side to side. This is where the real power is generated. Beginners often think the power comes from the arms, but in reality the rotational force generated in the legs and core drives the paddling motion.
The abdominals and lower back also act as stabilizers to maintain balance and proper posture. They are constantly engaged in maintaining good posture in your spine and preventing the boat from capsizing.
Legs & Hips
Yes, even the legs get used during kayaking. While not an intensely leg heavy sport like cycling, kayaking recruits the leg muscles as synergists for the entire range of motion. This means they act to stabilize the body during the kayak stroke.
A good kayak stroke begins at the point of contact between the feet and the boat. This is where the power transfer for the entire stroke is initiated, so it’s important to make sure your feet are firmly planted on the kayak’s foot braces. As you become more skilled at kayaking, you will find you can utilize your legs in a large number of ways: everything from bracing to turning and rolling.
The hips also come into play as the point of contact between your core and the kayak body. They are utilized heavily when preforming a ‘hip snap’ during a roll or brace maneuver.
Heart / Cardio
Last but not least is the most important muscle of all, the heart. Whether you’re kayaking leisurely, in whitewater or doing sprints, kayaking is a great cardiovascular exercise. In fact, an hour of kayaking can burn 400 to 500 calories. It’s also a great cardio option for people with lower-body injuries, as it’s one of the few cardio-centric upper body activities.
Check out this detailed video on several exercises you can do to improve your paddling:
How to Train for Kayaking
Whether you’re a novice or an experienced kayak enthusiast, training is vital when it comes to improving performance and staying safe on the water. Kayakers at every level of experience can benefit from targeted workouts designed specifically to build strength and endurance.
Planks are an essential exercise for training for kayaking. This core stability exercise works all the major muscle groups across the body. This ensures maximum strength and power are expelled with each paddle stroke.
To get the best result from this exercise when training for kayaking, build up slowly with shorter plank holds for shorter periods of time. You can then graduate to longer ranges and durations as your fitness improves.
Kettlebell swings are one of the most effective ways to train for kayaking. Not only do they help to strengthen and develop muscular endurance in the midsection, but they also target the arms, back, and shoulders. These happen to be all the muscle groups needed for paddling.
To perform kettlebell swings correctly, start with both feet flat on the ground holding the kettlebell in front of you. Sit back into your hips, then explosively drive through with your arms and legs to stand up. At the same time, work on keeping your core tight, swinging the weight upward until your arm is parallel with your ear.
Dumbbell Squat & Press
To begin this exercise, stand with your feet shoulder width apart, holding a dumbbell in each hand in front of you at chest level. Squat down until your thighs are parallel to the floor. While doing this, ensure that you are keeping your chest up and back straight.
As you return to the standing position, press both dumbbells directly over head until arms are fully extended. Be sure to keep both elbows slightly bent throughout the movement. This whole exercise counts as one rep and should be repeated 10-15 times for 3-4 sets depending on desired intensity level.
For this exercise, start by standing upright with feet shoulder width apart and a neutral spine. After gripping the barbell close to your shins, hinge your waist and lower your torso until it’s almost parallel with the ground. Keep your arms straight and pull the bar up toward your stomach before returning it down to its starting position.
Take care not to move your hips or lower back as you complete the movement for more consistent results. Completing 8-10 reps of this exercise can help prepare you for any kayaking adventure that lies ahead!